I know it’s a broad question and there’s no perfect way to answer it.
Summing up an entire race of people is fraught with generalizations, subjectivity and stereotypes. I totally get that.
However, “What are Chinese people like?” is a question that gets asked a lot, and I think there’s no harm in trying to approach it in a considered and thoughtful way.
I’ve lived, worked and traveled across China. While I’m by no means an expert on Chinese people, I can at least say I have some knowledge of what the locals are like.
So, from a Westerner’s perspective, here’s how I would sum up the Chinese in 10 traits.
If I had to choose just one characteristic to describe a Chinese person, it would be inquisitive.
Chinese people are genuinely interested in other people and cultures. This is because the Chinese culture and way of doing things is so different to everywhere else.
So, when people find out about someone or something new, they’re keen to learn more. From my personal experience, Chinese people do this in a non-judgmental and innocent kind of way. They’re simply curious about the world.
Perhaps this heightened sense of curiosity is due to the fact that China has been sealed off from the rest of the world for long periods of time over history.
But even within Chinese society, locals can be inquisitive when it comes to what other Chinese are doing.
For instance, a group of Chinese people playing chess by the roadside (not uncommon) might draw the interest of passers-by, with strangers stopping to see what they’re doing or even have a chat.
This is something you wouldn’t see in Australia, where I’m from.
Chinese people are generous in all senses of the word. They’re generous with their time, their food, and their money.
I can’t recall how many lavish dinners I’ve been invited to, with Chinese colleagues and friends footing the bill.
At restaurants in China, it’s an honor to be able to pay for everyone’s meal. You’ll actually see people fight with one another to pay the bill.
They find the concept of ‘going Dutch’ really strange. In fact, this is one of the English sayings that many senior students learn.
I think they like the saying because of its interesting history (were the Dutch really stingy?) as well as it being an alien concept in China.
I’ve never felt rushed in China in terms of people giving their time, whether that’s to help me with Mandarin, try and find a train station, or just to have a chat.
Years ago, I bonded with an old woman in China who reminded me of my late grandmother. She was warm-hearted, kind and funny.
I made regular visits to her tiny convenience store to buy a thing or two, but really to interact with the old lady, who I ended up calling nǎinai (奶奶). This means grandma in Mandarin.
Nǎinai spoke a local dialect and her accent was really thick, so I barely understood her. And she didn’t speak any English. We always laughed because so much was lost in translation.
We bonded over a period of about six months. When I left the city, I gave her some wine and fruit to thank her for her friendship and to say goodbye.
She responded by filling my bags with as many canned foods from her shelves as she could squeeze in. She wanted to make sure that I was well fed for my onward journey.
Her generosity still touches my heart today. She knew she would never see me again.
It’s no secret that the Chinese are great businesspeople.
For centuries, China has played an important role in world trade. The ancient Silk Road is a great example of Chinese merchants selling their wares to people in other parts of the globe.
But there have been periods where the entrepreneurial spirit has been suppressed, such as during the radical anti-business period of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
Today in China, there are countless young people with entrepreneurial aspirations. They come from not only the big cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen, but also from smaller cities.
They’re optimistic and not afraid of failure – trial and error is part of the process. This adds to their experience and opens up more opportunities in the future.
China is now home to the most start-up and microbusinesses in the world, and so many of these go on to become billion dollar success stories.
I love seeing all the ‘mobile’ salespeople in China who sell things in restricted pedestrian areas. As soon as they sense that the authorities are coming, they quickly pack up and hide their stuff in movable containers, only to plonk it back down around the corner.
Even though China is a rules-based society, the Chinese are among the world’s best when it comes to bending the rules.
I remember one time, during a trip to central China, my taxi driver ran a red light and didn’t seem too concerned.
I asked him about it, and he said in a very matter-of-fact way, “China has guidelines, not rules”.
I’ve loved this saying ever since!
In China, it’s all about the way a rule is interpreted. One day, it can mean something in particular, while the next day it can mean something totally different.
When it comes to international politics and diplomacy, this is something that foreign governments find difficult to navigate.
In a different sense of flexibility, I like the way Chinese people organise stuff at the last minute. They’re sometimes expected to drop what they’re doing and do something else, if asked.
For example, if someone is more senior than you, or has better connections (known as ‘guānxì’ or 关系) than you, then you might be expected to drop everything for them.
When I taught English in China (you can read my teaching in China tips here), this is something I struggled to adapt to initially.
I’m fairly organized and structured, so when I got last-minute invites or a change of plans, I kind of freaked out.
But over time, I came to enjoy the more flexible and structure-less way of doing things in China.
5. Uncritical thinkers
By this, I mean Chinese people don’t think critically, or at least it doesn’t come easily to them.
The Chinese education system is based on learning by rote. From a young age, kids are forced to start learning how to read and write countless Chinese characters.
This continues into high school, where they’re expected to be able to recall reams of information including mathematic formulas and lines of Chinese literature.
This culminates in the Gaokao, which is the final high school exam or college entrance exam. It’s notorious for making students do whatever it takes to memorize an unthinkable amount of information.
Chinese students won’t ask questions when they don’t understand something. Questioning the teacher is viewed as disrespectful in China.
This is a very different approach compared to the US and Europe, where critical thinking and questioning is encouraged.
By the time they’re adults, the Chinese are programmed to not think outside the box. Call me a cynic, but this is exactly what the government wants.
They want a cohesive society, not one that asks questions or is critical.
Now, a little story for you – which in fact may be more about logic and less about critical thinking! But still related, nonetheless.
I remember years ago, when I was studying in the city of Xi’an, a group of us (Chinese and Westerners) were walking on one side of an extremely crowded road.
Someone in the group accidentally dropped off into the crowd. So, one of the Chinese guys, Jackie, decided that he would look on the other side of the busy road to find him.
I found it extremely odd because the person was probably just some lengths behind us, on the same side of the road.
Our straggler eventually caught up with us, but we lost Jackie! It wasn’t until hours later that we were reunited with him.
Still to this day, I marvel at how differently the Chinese think and process information.
Chinese people work incredibly long hours.
You may have heard of the concept of ‘996’, where people in certain industries work from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week. Whether it’s right or wrong is a whole other conversation!
There are countless explanations as to why the Chinese are such hard workers, and forums like Quora are a good place to start.
Laziness is frowned upon in China, and not meeting your obligations is shameful. No one wants to be seen as letting the team down.
Those obligations extend beyond the workplace. For example, working hard within the home is also important as it supports the family. The family is the core unit in China, and you can’t let your family members down.
In a broader sense, working hard means you’re doing your bit to help the country too.
The China Daily (a government mouthpiece) says “Just as work and creative activities were responsible for the glorious achievements of the country’s past, they have also been responsible for everything it has achieved today.”
It’s a huge statement, but you get the idea that China is proud for being known as having hardworking people.
Have you ever experienced a Chinese tour group in your own country? They can be loud!
Being in China itself is no different. You’ll experience loud people wherever you go and in all sorts of situations – in groups, in conversations between two people, in taxis, in shops, at train stations, on the phone…
If you live in China for a while, you do get used to it. I guess you instinctively learn to block it out as white noise.
But it can be a bit of a shock for tourists visiting China. (See this page if you’re visiting for the first time.)
People can talk so loudly in restaurants that you might have to yell out “Waiter!” whenever you need service. This behavior is perfectly normal.
You might also see two people yelling at each other on the street. Are they having a fight? Nope, they’re just glad to see each other.
In China, loud isn’t a bad thing. It shouldn’t be confused with rudeness. Loud voices can actually be an indication of cheerfulness, friendliness and hospitality.
If a person speaks too quietly, it might be considered strange, and listeners could quickly get bored with the lack of drama!
Also, in a hugely populated and noisy country like China, it’s important to be heard and get what you want. If you’re too timid, you might miss out.
8. Family oriented
The Chinese family unit is extremely important in Chinese culture and society.
Within the traditional Chinese family structure, each family member has a specific form of address on both the maternal and paternal sides of the family.
Elderly Chinese people are looked after by their children as they age (care homes aren’t popular in China). This is one of the reasons why Chinese feel so much pressure to have kids and keep the family line going.
This can be summed up by the Chinese concept of filial piety. It’s basically a Confucian virtue that says you should honor the elders in your family, by looking after them both inside and outside the home.
For the holidays, Chinese people return to their hometown, often thousands of miles away, and spend time with their family. Eating meals together is very much part of celebrating the holidays.
Chinese people can be unashamedly blunt. I really admire this trait.
I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve been asked “How much do you earn?” and “Are you married?” In China, these are perfectly normal questions to ask any adult.
People might comment on your weight, your height, or any other physical feature. They just state the obvious without worrying about how it might land on you.
It’s generally said without any malice intentions.
I’ve heard so many strangers say “He’s so tall!” (Tā nàme gāo a! / 他那么高啊!) within earshot of me. It’s hard to imagine ever hearing that in a Western country.
Besides, I’m only 6 foot 2 inches!
Even kids are given nicknames like ‘Little Fatty’ and ‘Four Eyes’. I think it’s safe to say the woke movement hasn’t reached China yet.
Even though Chinese people can be blunt, they aren’t super-intrusive, and there are some topics they won’t go near.
For example, you won’t be asked about your religion, your political stance, or your sexuality (the assumption is everyone is straight).
But I suppose these are taboos that are off-limits for political and social cohesion reasons more than anything.
Spirituality runs deep in China.
Many people practice elements of Confucianism and other traditional folk religions in their day-to-day life. Temples can be found all over the country.
It’s not overt though, it’s something you’ve got to dig a little deeper to discover. Chinese people are discreet when it comes to praying to a God.
There are five officially recognized religions in the country – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity and Protestantism.
But religious activities are restricted and religious institutions aren’t seen actively recruiting new members. Even online sales of the bible are banned. Religion poses a threat to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule.
I think this makes it easier for people to identify as spiritual rather than religious.
Many Chinese people are also superstitious – which may or may not be connected with their spirituality – even though the CCP warns against it.
Things like lucky numbers play an important part of their life, especially for things like their wedding date, and the date for moving into a new home.
Now you know what Chinese people are like
Whether you’re planning a trip to China or you just want to get into the psyche of a Chinese person, I hope I’ve been able to help you a bit.
The best way to get know and understand Chinese people is to interact with them as much as you can. Then you can come to your own conclusions.
As always, I’m keen to hear your thoughts. Please post your comments below.
Next, check out the best movies about China and discover more about this amazing country. I unashamedly rank Kung Fu Panda as one of the best!
Keep learning about Chinese people
There’s plenty more to know:
- Famous Chinese people – China’s biggest names
- Hot water – why the Chinese drink it
- Chinese employers – do they really suck?
Main image credit: Tookapic from Pixabay.
FAQ about Chinese people
Are Chinese people friendly?
Yes, they’re very friendly. On a deeper level, it may take some time before they open up to you, similar to other cultures.
What do Chinese people eat?
They eat a broad range of food including rice, noodles, dumplings, fish, duck, pork, chicken, eggs, tofu, and plenty of vegetables. The main dishes depend on the region of China you’re in.
Do Chinese people hug?
Generally speaking, no. Hugging and physical affection in public isn't common in China. However, traditional Chinese values are becoming a bit more relaxed and you may see very close friends or relatives occasionally hug each other.
Can Chinese people read traditional Chinese?
Traditional Chinese is prevalent only in southern China, like Guangzhou and Hong Kong. People in other areas of China generally can’t read traditional Chinese characters, though they can probably guess some words based on their knowledge of simplified Chinese.
Can Chinese people leave China?
They can but it’s requires time, money and effort. Only a small fraction of Chinese hold a passport, though more and more Chinese are traveling overseas nowadays. China doesn’t recognize dual nationality, so a permanent move overseas can mean relinquishing Chinese citizenship.